Vanity Fair: Essay Questions

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1. Describe the ways that Becky Sharp thrives in society before her downfall.

As Becky leaves the Pinkerton Academy, she hurls the gift of a dictionary out of the carriage window and immediately impresses the reader as an independent, rebellious character. However, once she arrives at Amelia’s home she decides to act upon her future plans which include marrying Joseph Sedley. She and the narrator recognize that for a woman to survive and prosper in the early 19th century it is necessary to marry well. Although this is an abortive mission, it is made clear that this morally ambivalent orphan must organize her own destiny.


Her secret marriage to Rawdon appears to be one of emotion rather than cold logic, but through the descriptions of their relationship it is made evident that Becky is in control of Rawdon and she uses her wits and credit to maintain a respectable standard of living. Her rise in English society culminates in her appearance in front of the Sovereign at Court and in the invitation to Lady Gaunt’s party. These forms of acceptance by the aristocracy are brought about by her connection to Sir Pitt Crawley and Lord Steyne and by her ability to exploit these relationships (as do other participants of this Vanity Fair).


2. Analyze the portrayal of Amelia Sedley and how this contrasts with that of Becky Sharp.

Becky is depicted as amoral, ambitious and scheming throughout the novel. Despite these negative connotations, she is also made humorous because of her candid approach to supposedly superior figures and for the ironic honesty of her deceptions.


In comparison, Amelia initially appears to be given the role of innocent. As the narrative progresses, however, the narrator keeps reminding the readers that Amelia is not without fault either. She is given insipid attributes from the start and is comically unable to see that Becky is not only a ‘little adventuress’, but a schemer too. It is Amelia’s one-sided relationship with Dobbin that demonstrates her ability to be selfish. Although aware of his love for her, she continues to exploit their friendship for her own advantage as she desires his companionship. 


By the time of the conclusion, Amelia, along with Dobbin, has been re-instated as one of the few morally upright characters. Their marriage signifies a possible alternative to the world of Vanity Fair, although the final note, which wonders if any human is ever truly happy or satisfied, puts this into doubt.


3. Consider the ramifications of the full title, Vanity Fair: a Novel Without a Hero.

In keeping with its realist vein, Vanity Fair refuses to simplify its portrayal of human relationships. It is without a hero and peopled with selfish and corrupt characters. As well as maintaining the use of realism, this also makes the satire viable.


If one considers the large cast, it is perhaps only Dobbin of the main players who comes close to acting heroically in the assistance he gives Amelia. This is arguably a self-serving act, however, as he loves her and hopes for reciprocation. He is also referred to as the ‘hypocrite’ on a number of occasions as the narrator pushes the readers to consider how even Dobbin is not without fault.


4. Consider the ways in which this novel criticizes the wealthy classes.

The aristocracy is depicted here in an unflattering light as those in the upper echelons of society are seen to do little to command the respect they demand. The members of the merchant classes (such as the Osbornes), which are seen to strive to buy their way into acceptance as ladies and gentlemen, are arguably even more concerned with material wealth and social standing.


Through the descriptions of the Crawley family and Lord Steyne, the aristocracy are lambasted as amoral and ruthless. Although powerful already, these formally revered figures are seen to grasp for more influence and money at every opportunity.


Becky Sharp is an interloper in this world, as a child of an artist and a dancer. Despite her less admirable qualities (which include a possible murder), she is still allowed to be far more sympathetic than those that are born into privilege.

Her actions are condemned by the narrator, but this intrusive voice also reminds the readers that she may have behaved differently if she had been born into wealth. Lord Steyne and the first Sir Pitt Crawley are not given such excuses as their abuses of power are criticized with impunity.


5. Consider the use of satire as an effective form of criticism?

Satire may be defined as a form of criticism that is brought about with humor, irony and exaggeration. It works by exploiting a known subject, such as the privilege of being born into the aristocracy, and has the effect of deflating the notion that inequality is natural.


Satire also draws on contemporary topics and so may lose its sharpness and relevance over time. In this instance, the satire of social folly and greed has proven to have longevity as the targets are still recognizable. This is partly because there continues to be an English class system, although in a different form to the one portrayed in Vanity Fair. Thackeray’s ridicule of material concerns and superficial aspirations is also relevant in a culture that is determined to sell the celebrity lifestyle. 

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